Bible translator, theologian, patriot—a true Renaissance man.

Gonzalo báez-camargo fills half a column in the International Who’s Who. The most recent book by this 81-year-old Mexico City author, written under a favorite pen name, Pedro Gringoire, is a collection of published articles related to Israel—a reflection of his love for the land and people of the Bible. He is widely known in Latin America as a translations consultant with the United Bible Societies.

A true Renaissance man—essayist, dramatist, and archeologist, with interests in music and photography—the soft-spoken Báez-Camargo has carved a niche in both secular and religious worlds. He is a lifelong Methodist whom some might call Mexico’s “grand old man of evangelicalism,” but he is surprisingly little known outside the Spanish-speaking world.

While he deprecates his reputation as a polyglot, the prolific Báez-Camargo writes book reviews in French and Italian, converses and writes fluently in English, reads and translates Hebrew and New Testament Greek, and was elected in 1980 to the prestigious Mexican Academy of the Language. He also has written a weekly column for the Mexico City Daily Excelsior since 1929.

Báez-Camargo has participated actively in the life and history of his country. At 15 he joined the revolutionary army, was wounded, promoted to second lieutenant, and fought in a battle to retake Mexico City from forces of the so-called Convention.

Hanging on his office wall is a photo showing him as a member of the provisional committee that organized the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948. He was also one of several Protestants invited to a private meeting with John Paul II during the Pope’s recent visit to Mexico.

Báez-Camargo grew up a third-generation Methodist in a nation that remains 90 percent Roman Catholic. His own family did not experience physical persecution, but knew strong social pressures. “For our services,” he recalls, “we had to have a policeman guarding the church, because people molested those who were entering and leaving.”

His father died of yellow fever when Gonzalo was four. His mother died when he was 11. Victoriano Báez, a Methodist pastor of modest means and a family of eight, adopted young Camargo. Himself a Bible translator, Báez encouraged Gonzalo (now Báez-Camargo) in his studies.

He graduated as a teacher at 17, and after work as an assistant pastor and vice-president of the Mexican Methodist Institute in Puebla, he moved to Mexico City to become secretary of the National Council of Evangelical Churches. Later posts included managing the Union Publishing House in Mexico City, and publishing a religious and philosophical thought journal.

Article continues below

Báez-camargo has held a variety of seminary and university teaching positions and taken a leading part in Methodist and world ecumenical affairs. This has drawn some fire from Mexican evangelicals. He does not blame them, and tells why: “The word ecumenical has become associated with unpleasant movements or persons. This came about as some people of the extreme left and liberation theology have infiltrated the ecumenical movement all the way down from the World Council of Churches. My heart has pain when I say so, because I had a very modest part in the organizing of the World Council, and worked to promote it.”

In fact, Báez-Camargo was a member in the 1950s and 1960s of several WCC committees, and later resigned in disfavor over what he saw as the WCC’s left-leaning tendency. He cited examples of recent WCC involvements. In Mexico it sponsors the Coordinating Committee of Ecumenical Projects, which participated with leftist and homosexual groups in a recent Mexico City march favoring revolution in El Salvador. He added that the committee, which gets funds from the Methodist Board of Global Ministries, is headed by a former Methodist pastor turned Communist politician.

He lamented the Sunday school materials recently published by the WCC-financed Evangelical Committee on Christian Education for Latin America. These are a series of short biographies of revolutionary leaders, including Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. “For me,” said Báez-Camargo, “that is too much.”

He regrets that Mexico lost nearly half its territory to the U.S.A. in the 1840s. Because of that and other involvements from the north, he explains, “if you scratch almost any Latin American, you will find some anti-U.S. feeling underneath.” North Americans need to counter this. “I hope CHRISTIANITY TODAY will encourage people to come to Mexico who are genuinely interested in the Mexican people and who want to understand the history … of Mexico.”

He is an active member of a Methodist church near the home of his younger son, with whom he lives (his wife Urania died 14 years ago). He also leads a weekly Bible study in the auditorium of the Bible Society of Mexico, attended by university students, Catholics, and a variety of Protestants.

Báez-Camargo’s personal encounter with Christ was not dramatic, like Paul’s, but more like Timothy’s or that of the pilgrims of Emmaus: “Christ had been with the pilgrims all the time, only they didn’t know that it was he until the moment of revelation.”

Article continues below

He remembers reading the story of the crucifixion one day during daily devotions: “Of course, I had read this many times before [as seminary graduate, former pastor, and product of a Christian home]. But on that occasion I realized that Christ died for me personally. That truth pressed down on my heart. I had been learning since Sunday school about Christ.… But it is different when you come to … say, Yes, I know what he did, but now I know what he did for me. Directly for me. As if he had my name in his notebook.”

At that point he laughed, as if at the incredible and incomprehensible simplicity of the divine act. The impression was that all his books, honors, and experiences would not stack up against that simple, life-changing experience.

An Interview With Gonzalo Báez-Camargo: Mexico’S Grand Old Man Of Evangelism

Time spent with 81-year-old writer and Bible-scholar Gonzalo Báez-Camargo is like an investment in a world-and-church-history course. He has insights gained from nearly seven decades as a writer on Mexico’s secular and religious scene. He played a formative role in the world ecumenical movement, and today is on the cutting edge of Bible translation work in the Spanish language. CHRISTIANITY TODAY correspondent and former staff news writer John Maust visited at length with Báez-Camargo in his suburban Mexico City home. His personable host discussed topics ranging from liberation theology to challenges of Bible translation. A portion of that conversation follows.

Why did you volunteer to fight in the revolutionary army in 1915? Was this out of Christian duty?

Well, frankly, I went just because the others went. I joined with a number of other students from the Mexican Methodist Institute in Puebla, which closed temporarily because of the revolution. When my brother and I wrote to my father, who was in Spain doing a translation of the New Testament from Greek to Spanish, he approved our decision to join. He said, “You stay with your general as long as you can.” But when the school reopened after about a year, we left the army.

Would you do it again?

I would hesitate very much to take up arms myself. But I wouldn’t condemn my brother in the faith who considers in conscience that he has to do it. I would say, let the church keep away from any kind of political commitment—that is, in the sense of partisan politics.

Article continues below

What was the Mexican church’s role and involvement during the years of revolution?

The Catholic church, which enjoyed many privileges under Díaz, opposed the revolution up until about 1927. The Protestant churches did not, as churches, make any commitment for or against.

But because our Protestant education was liberal (not in the theological sense), the majority of Protestants were prepared to appreciate the revolution’s programs for social, economic, and political change. Protestants were prepared to make a stand for the revolution, but as individuals. As far as I know, none of the laymen or pastors who joined the revolutionary army did so in the name of the churches or involved their respective churches in what they were doing. It was an individual option, and my emphasis has always been that.

What was the position of pastors in the pulpit?

My pastor at the Methodist church in Puebla, Alfonso Herrera, preached in a congregation having both sides: students enthusiastically supporting Carranza as well as militiamen supporting Huerta.

I am a witness that he took the pulpit and preached the gospel to all of us, with no respect to political ideas. From his pulpit he never spoke for or against the revolution or the government. He was calling people to repent, to accept Jesus Christ.

This is the point: when Caranza’s revolution triumphed in 1914, and his brother Jesús, a general, passed through Puebla with his army, Pastor Herrera returned his credentials to the Methodist church. He became a layman, and joined the army as a civilian—becoming General Jesús Carranza’s private secretary. Then what we had suspected became clear: all the time Pastor Herrera had been a member of a clandestine Puebla group promoting the revolution. The striking fact is that he never used his pulpit for propaganda against the government. And the Huerta government deserved preaching against; it was terrible. Herrera used the pulpit for what it was intended: preaching the gospel.

But can the church as a body get involved socially?

My understanding of evangelization is not confined to the proclamation of the gospel, but to assisting people to live the gospel in their families and in the community. It is part of the work of evangelization to organize people to do something for the community. But, mind you, first must come proclamation of the gospel.

People now say, “Let’s get back to the prophetic role.” But do they understand the “prophetic role”? The prophets denounced social evils, but always their central message was, Get back to the Lord. Repent.

Article continues below

So the prophetic role of Christian churches should be first of all a call to repentance and accepting Christ as Savior. The mistake occurs when Christians confine themselves to that experience—“How beautiful to be saved”—and do not look out into the world with all its problems.

How does all this tie in to your assessment of liberation theology?

The main problem in the world continues to be the unconverted heart as the root of all evil—individual and social. I ask my Christian fellows to part with all these ideas based on Marxism and historical materialism, which make social structures the root of evil. The structures won’t change unless the heart is changed, and changed only by God’s grace in Christ.

Some elements in liberation theology also indicate it is not so necessary to get down to personal conversion. They speak of conversion with a different meaning. It is not possible to convert the whole community unless you convert the persons who belong to that community.

Describe your approach to evangelism.

I’m not much of an advocate of mass evangelism. One of my professors in seminary told this story: If you have 50 bottles to be filled with water, you don’t take a bucket and dump it out hoping to fill them all. No, you grab the first bottle by the neck, and then you pour in water until it is filled. Then you go on to the next bottle.

Whenever I have the opportunity, I ask the churches, “What is your evangelism program for the whole year?” So many churches think of evangelism as a two- or three-week program, which requires bringing in someone from the States with a big name who draws crowds.

I always ask, “Are you training each member of your church to be a witness whenever an opportunity arises, to look for opportunities to share a personal experience of what Christ has done?”

Because of my statements, people say, “Mr. Báez-Camargo has no interest in the saving of souls.” No, to me, salvation is something that takes the whole of a person—body, mind, everything he is. I plead for more effective methods, in which the work goes on more continuously than through a special program or campaign.

What is an effective evangelistic method that you’ve discovered?

I tell Christians that at least they can distribute the Bible. I’ve seen where even one burned leaf of a Bible led people to Christ.

Years ago near Tampico, a colporteur selling Bibles was attacked by fanatics and his Bibles were destroyed. Some Indians, watching this, realized the problems started just because of the book. They picked up some of the pieces, and took them to a leader of their village, who recognized them as coming from the Bible. “When I was in the hospital, I was visited by a woman who gave me this book,” the leader said. The Indians got hold of a Bible then, and that was the beginning. The Indians thought if that book was worth fighting for, it must be worth something. I visited that village later on, and practically all were Christians.

Article continues below

What is the Mexican government’s position on religion?

Mexico is a “secular state,” in which it is illegal for churches to own property, operate schools, or be pastored by a foreigner, among other things. Religious radio broadcasting was banned some months ago. It seems to me that the restriction came from the extreme Left, rather than Catholics as some have charged, because some of the banned radio programs were Roman Catholic.

In my experience with certain ecumenical organizations, I have seen a takeover by the Left. I still have to answer to myself whether this was a deliberate plan by leftists to dominate and absorb, or whether the leaders just let it happen, weren’t aware of what was happening, or organized it.

What were those experiences?

A Lutheran pastor and I, for instance, founded the Ecumenical Center in Mexico City for the purpose of true ecumenism—promoting good relations between all the churches, including Roman Catholics. But he began bringing in people who were following a left, liberation theology line. I do not think it was a deliberate thing. I warned him, “Look out. I know those people.” But he insisted, and it got to the point that I decided to resign.

I was vice-president of the World Council of Christian Education, which merged with the World Council of Churches in 1966. I opposed the merger very strongly. Since the WCC is infiltrated by persons who have taken that left, liberation theology line, naturally they will subsidize persons and groups of similar persuasion. I was also vice-president for evangelism of the former International Missionary Council, which merged with the WCC in 1958. At the last meeting in Ghana, the council took the decision for merger against the advice of some of us. The leaders said it was a matter of finance—that there was no reason to be giving to three different ecumenical bodies. This argument did not sound very significant to some of us; after all, boards of missions could decide for themselves which ecumenical group to contribute to.

Article continues below

Still, you are a strong advocate of ecumenism. In what respect?

The Bible teaches that we are one in Christ. Christ himself, by his sacrifice, made us one in him. Ecumenism is an accomplished fact. Yet there is this tension: we have not learned to live as what we are—one in Christ. It’s like members of a family. No one in a family can say he does not belong to that family. But how many family members live as complete strangers to each other, or even as enemies? It’s a paradox.

What is the status of Protestant-Catholic relations in Mexico?

Cooperation, where it occurs, is mostly on an individual basis, not as a group. This kind of ecumenism is something that must be built from the bottom up. It is a work that has to be promoted among the individual believers, telling them it is a Bible doctrine that we are one in Christ.

Are Catholics turning more and more to the Bible in Latin America?

There is a biblical awakening among them. Both the United Bible Society and Living Bibles have issued a Bible with the Apocrypha for Roman Catholics. They consider that if Catholic circles are opening to the Bible, they should provide one that Catholics accept as the complete Bible. Many Protestant pastors have been using Catholic editions of the Bible—doctrinal notes and all—in their evangelistic work with Catholics.

What caused this interest in the Bible among Roman Catholics?

Vatican actions during the last century explains some of it. But I can also give you the answer one Roman Catholic leader gave to me: “When in our church the Bible was practically unknown except to priests and in Latin, you Protestants through the centuries were loyal to the Bible. We owe it to you that now there is a new interest.”

What do you say to those who deny the divine inspiration of Scripture?

I don’t think inspiration is something that can be rationally and intellectually proven. I cannot convince anyone otherwise who says the Bible is just another book. The only way is for Christians to share out of their experience what the Bible means in their lives. The ultimate evidence of the inspiration of Scripture is that you hear the voice of God in this Book as in no other book. Wesley’s sermons are very inspiring for me, for instance, but they do not speak to my heart as the Bible does.

Would you describe your view of the matter of continuing revelation?

The Bible was something for once and for all. It was a very special revelation. Once the Bible was finished, we had it as the norm and the authority. You can ask God for inspiration as you write a book, and God will inspire it. But you have to check it against the Bible.

Article continues below

How did Dios Habla Hoy, the popular Spanish equivalent of the Good News Bible, come about?

The New Testament, which took the name Dios Llega Al Hombre, was first published in 1966, and was primarily the work of Dr. William Wonderley. It was based on the textus receptus [received text], the traditional Greek text that was based on the very few manuscripts known in the sixteenth century. With the later discovery of such great manuscripts as the Sinaitic and Alexandrian, which go back to the fourth and fifth century, it was necessary to revise these Greek texts that had come to us mainly from Erasmus in the sixteenth century. These revised works, which we call the critical text, were used for the New Testament in the subsequent Dios Habla Hoy. As for the Old Testament, the team of translators considered especially the new light that came from the Dead Sea Scrolls.

I was the exegetical consultant, and wrote the introductions to each book in Dios Habla Hoy, and now I am in charge of revisions for its second edition. My next project for UBS is writing the Old Testament portion of a study Bible, using the 1960 Reina Valera version.

So then, biblical translation is a continuing process, which depends a great deal on new materials that are discovered?

Yes. I already mentioned the importance of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. You cannot take those scrolls as the final word as to the texts, but in many cases they throw considerable light on verses that have been a headache for translators.

Considering all your scholarly study of the Bible, how do you approach afresh your personal devotions?

I come to the Bible in two different ways. I come for my personal devotions, trying to hear what the Lord has to say to me. And in my approach as a translator, which is not what you may call a strictly devotional approach, I am searching for something else. In a way, the two are connected. Even if I approach the Bible on a work assignment, I’m conscious that in order to get what I’m looking for I need God’s help.

Yes, there is a danger for the seminarian or scholar to lose some of the devotional aspect. One has to keep the balance. In all matters of religion, it is possible to become so concerned about matters that belong to mere information, mere knowledge, that you miss the real meaning of the Bible as the Word of God.

You keep an incredibly busy schedule for a man of 81. What’s your secret?

To some extent, the secret of keeping myself working is working. My day lasts generally from 7 or 8 A.M. to 9 P.M., with breaks in between, of course. Naturally, I take some times for a little rest. I go over a magazine, or a book for review. To me, relaxation is just changing or varying the kind of work I’m doing.

Being active makes you feel very useful. It gives you the feeling that you have not been put aside. That feeling kills people. It’s an oppressive condition that shortens life.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.